Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Finding the Next Manning-Harrison Connection

I grew up in the '80s and watched the beginning, the evolution, and the end of the Montana-Rice combo. It was a thing of pure beauty from start to finish ... Joe Cool dropping back, finding the greatest WR of all time cutting across the middle, or gliding down along the sidelines, and finding a way to place the football directly into Jerry's arms, time and time again. How fitting that the one time that Joe Montana didn't win a Super Bowl MVP award, Rice was the one to receive it. Sure, Young-to-Rice resulted in more touchdowns (and was a dynamic combo in and of itself), but Montana-Rice was the original to me ... and who knows? Would Rice have developed to be so great without the tutelage of Montana? Sadly, however, that connection ended after time, and many wondered if we'd see such a bond between QB and WR ever again.

Which duo will be the next to carry the torch of awesomeness?

Of course, the late 1990s and this decade brought us the Manning-to-Harrison tandem, which proceeded to break the marks set by Montana and Rice. Like Montana and Rice, Manning and Harrison developed the bond that allowed them to know what the other was thinking before he thought it. And, of course, it led to many amazing passes and pass receptions for the viewing pleasure of NFL fans. But, alas, it seems that this bond is singing its own swan song, with Harrison missing most all of last season, and with neither of them at 100% this year. So, the question before the NFL is, will we ever see another fantastically prolific QB-WR duo? And if so, is that tandem together in the league right now? I'm going to venture out and analyze four potential duos that might soon vault to that level.

1. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall
Even though the season is young, and the two have only played one game together this season, this is the trendy pick. Both are young and dynamic players in their third seasons. Cutler has a cannon of an arm, and is a tough player who willed himself through a 40 pound weight loss, caused by diabetes, last season. His grit and playmaking abilities, in my opinion, remind me of a less-spastic Brett Favre. The question remains in his football intelligence, though that should be determined by season's end. Marshall is a playmaker through and through. Eighteen catches in his first appearance this season says enough. However, unlike Harrison, he's not the quiet type, and does have a bit of the T.O. "i love me some me" mentality, which could lead to excessive temper tantrums down the stretch, thereby diminishing his relationship with Cutler.
But, the strongest argument aside from their individual capacities, in my mind, that these two can become the next Manning-Harrison, stems from that brazen personality of Marshall. Last summer, when Marshall injured himself through his wayward antics, Cutler didn't hold back. He called out his #1 receiver in the public eye. While most may see that as a source of friction, I see it as the type of "calling out" that exists between two people who respect each other and hold one another in high regard ... like a guy telling his close friend to shape up. If I'm right in my reading of the situation, this duo should have many seasons of success before it, barring intervention by free agency.

2. Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress
This list couldn't be complete without including the younger Manning brother as a potential heir to his brother's spot. It took Eli four seasons to catch the Super Bowl win that it took Peyton nine seasons to grasp, and Archie has always said he feels Eli was the better player ... maybe there's something to that. Plaxico is no slouch either. Sure, I enjoyed referring to him as "Plexiglass" for his first few seasons, thanks to his countless injuries. But his tough play through injuries during all of last season earned him lots of respect. His talent was never a question, but he has excelled past where I had him ranked.
Eli, in his fifth year, has finally matured into a leader and has developed the calm swagger requisite for a QB to attain elite status, though he's still a total dork. That Eli has reached a higher level of play at the same time Plax has finally stepped up into a #1 WR role bodes well for the Giants and very well for the potential of keeping a Manning as part of the NFL's top QB-WR combination.

3. Trent Edwards and Lee Evans
Trent Edwards is only in his second season, but he has developed a solid relationship with his fifth-year wideout. The thing I like about this team is that Evans had three years to mature as a receiver before Edwards came along, much like Harrison having a two-year head start over Peyton Manning. This gap lets the receiver aid in tutoring the quarterback, thereby allowing Edwards the opportunity to not only learn how to be a good QB in the NFL, but also how to be a good QB for Evans.
Of course, there is less of a body of evidence to base this on than there is the Cutler-Marshall combo (the requisite "M" last name is also missing from this duo), but the situation is one that I like a lot. Even if it does not excel to the levels of Manning-Harrison greatness, it is one that will still excel for a few years.

4. Matt Ryan and Roddy White
This is probably the biggest gamble I'm taking, but then again each of these is a gamble. Matt Ryan had an awesome finish to his college career, and had an amazing start in the NFL, tossing a 62-yard touchdown pass on his very first professional throw. Roddy White is a talented fourth-year receiver who has the tools to be able to make it as a premier wideout. Unfortunately, this duo only has 120-minutes of game experience to be analyzed, so I cannot really say much. However, I can point to the six times they have connected for 113 yards, an average of nearly 19-yards per reception. That's not exactly the stuff of legends, but given the 2:1 run:pass ratio used by the Falcons thus far, the numbers aren't shabby. Ultimately my gut wants me to include them as the fourth option, given their individual talents, that White has three seasons already under his belt, and that Ryan seems to have a good football head on his shoulders.

Honorable Mention
If I were to include a fifth tandem, it would likely be Brees-Colston, however Brees has been too inconsistent over his first seven seasons and Colson will miss the next six weeks or so. I just don't see it. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson. They have a lot going for them, but I'm not sure I see the possibility of that "connection" that is necessary to reach Montana/Rice or Manning/Harrison levels. Also, there are other duos capable of great successes, such as Romo/T.O., Brady/Moss, and McNabb/Jackson. However, in each of these pairs, there is one player who has at least reached the 10-year mark on his career (T.O., Moss and McNabb), which doesn't bode well in hoping for numerous years of awesomeness as a QB-WR duo. But still, they do get some props.

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